Anybody can breathe. Therefore anybody can practice yoga.”
– T.K.V Desikachar
Around 200BC the Sage Patanjali codified the philosophy of yoga in the Yoga Sutras. He spoke of eight limbs or paths to yoga. Asana, the physical practice of yoga, is one of the eight limbs. Another is Pranayama which is loosely defined as regulation of the breath or life force. Many believe that mastery of the physical poses or Asana is not the goal of yoga, but to bring awareness to the poses while you are in them. Controlled breath serves this end by calming the mind and thereby bringing awareness to the present moment.
In yoga we practice a type of breathing known as Ujjai Pranayama which translates from Sanskrit as “Victorious Breath.” However, it is more commonly referred to in the West as “Ocean Breath.” This is because, when performed correctly, the sound of your breath is reminiscent of the ocean. Ujjai Pranayama should be audible to yourself, but not to someone several feet away.
To perform Ujjai Pranayama, place the back of your tongue on the soft pallet of your mouth with the tip of the tongue toward the back of the front teeth. Slightly constrict your throat and breathe through your nose. When you inhale, draw breath into your belly, lower rib cage, and finally into the chest and throat. When you exhale the breath, exhale first from the throat and chest and then move down to the belly.
Ujjai Pranayama calms your mind and warms your body. It can slow your heart rate while increasing lung capacity. It is known to release muscle tension and reduce anxiety. So, when you hear your yoga instructor says that all you need to do now is to breathe into the yoga pose, remember that there is a method to yogic breathing and a purpose. The purpose is to bring your awareness into the present moment. If your breath is deep and calm, then you can focus on the present moment, no matter how challenging the yoga pose is for you.
And the next time someone says to you “just breathe” while confronting a challenging situation off the mat, remember the benefits of Ujjai Pranayama. You can take your acquired yoga breathing practice and apply it to troublesome moments off your yoga mat as well. You may find that it helps you to confront difficult situations more calmly, mindfully and with greater depth if you simply remember to breathe.